What Do Christians Think About the Netanyahu Speech?

Earlier this week, reacting to the faux controversy over President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast remarks, Ed Kilgore argued that all too often, the media ignores the views of liberal Christians, opting instead to “buy the idea that the only ‘authentic’ Christians (or ‘Christian music,’ or ‘Christian films’) are conservative.” That blindness to the liberal wing marginalizes, Kilgore argues, millions of mainline Protestants and the majority of Catholics who, for example, oppose the church’s position on marriage equality.

A similar divide is brewing between Christian groups over the propriety of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to Congress. So far, 18 members of Congress (15 House members and 3 Senators, all Democrats except for Bernie Sanders, an independent) have confirmed they are skipping the speech. Vice President Joe Biden will be out of the country.

Yesterday, the Emergency Committee for Israel and Christians United for Israel, which claims to be “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States” and  “one of the leading Christian grassroots movements in the world,” accused legislators not attending the speech of siding with Israel’s (and America’s) enemies. In a joint statement issued by William Kristol, ECI’s chairman, and Gary Bauer, CUFI’s chairman, the two groups charged:

The bottom line is simple: The enemies of Israel benefit most from this campaign against the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech. Whatever their views on Israeli politics or the Iranian nuclear negotiations, members of Congress who are friends of Israel should not play into the hands of Israel’s enemies — and America’s — by boycotting this speech. Boycotting Israel is high on the agenda of the enemies of Israel. Welcoming Israel’s Prime Minister to the halls of Congress is the least that those who claim to be friends of the Jewish state should do.

As representatives of two proudly pro-Israel organizations, we urge members of Congress to do the right thing for the U.S. and Israel. And for those who would turn their backs on Israel and boycott its leader — they are no friends of Israel, and we pledge to do our best to educate voters about their undermining of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship at this crucial hour.

Today, in an email to supporters, CUFI is urging voters to call their representatives and demand that they attend the speech. “Attending this speech is not merely an opportunity for our representatives;” the email reads, “it is their responsibility.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the National Council of Churches is calling on Netanyahu to cancel the speech. The NCC claims it is a “leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States,” and that its “37 member communions — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches,” represent 45 million Americans.

It’s hard to imagine a more sharply defined divide between these two groups. CUFI supports sanctions against Iran, not what it calls a “sham agreement allows Iran to obtain a nuclear weapons capability.” It supports settlements and opposes peace talks with the Palestinians. It casts Netanyahu’s speech as an essential education on Iran, and complaints about the way in which the invitation was extended “petty.”

The NCC statement, in contrast, calls the timing and lack of protocol surrounding the invitation “lamentable.” It saves its harsher words, though, for “the tacit support” the appearance “gives to Mr. Netanyahu’s policies, including unbridled settlement building and expansion into Palestinian territory.” Those policies, the statement continues, “erode the chances for a genuine two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the official position of the United States, and which is the only viable means to establish a just peace.” Supporting those policies, NCC argues in unequivocal language, is “morally indefensible.”

The NCC also calls engagement with Iran “the best means to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation.” Allowing Netanyahu “to inveigh against these negotiations is therefore to take a stand against the prospects for peace. Again, this is morally indefensible.”

There is no single “Christian” view on Netanyahu’s speech, or on Israel, for that matter. Perhaps the more interesting development to watch here is not that the divide exists, but how (or whether) the media will cover it.